RENTON, WA - With one preseason game remaining on the docket before the start of the 2012 regular season, Seahawks general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll faced a franchise-altering conundrum at the quarterback position: Would free agent signee Matt Flynn be Seattle's starter under center as originally anticipated? Or was it already time to give the keys to the offense to upstart rookie Russell Wilson?
After much deliberation, despite the fact Flynn had signed a three-year, $26 million deal back in March with the expectation he would start, Schneider and Carroll abided by their "Always Compete" mantra. Rewarding the player who outright won the starting gig in training camp and exhibition play, the Wilson era would commence immediately in Week 1 against the Cardinals.
While many analysts and fans alike panned Seattle's decision at the time, when asked about the process of picking Wilson over Flynn, Carroll told reporters on Wednesday that when a choice had to be made, there was no hesitation about rolling the dice by throwing a rookie quarterback into the fire.
"I was okay with it, I was fine about it and it didn’t really make sense to a lot of people on why we would do that. We had seen him. John and I totally agreed on the player that he was but we needed to work our way through how it was going to impact him and how he would handle the ups and the downs of it," Carroll told reporters, recalling Wilson's first start. "Remember that we should have won the first game that we played. We were on the seven-yard line and we didn’t freaking win the first game, come from behind. It should have been his heroic start and we just didn’t get it done. It always pissed me off that he didn’t get that because he was worthy of winning that first game, first one out."
Much to the chagrin of Carroll, Wilson wasn't quite able to cap off a game-winning drive in his NFL debut in Glendale, but electing to roll with him under center right away helped usher in the best decade in Seahawks franchise history. Since losing that first start nine years ago, the former third-round pick out of Wisconsin hasn't tasted defeat often, leading his team to a 99-45-1 record, eight playoff appearances, four NFL West titles, and a Super Bowl victory.
Set to square off with the Titans at Lumen Field on Sunday, Wilson will have a chance to add another impressive milestone to his increasingly Hall of Fame-worthy resume. If the Seahawks can find a way to improve to 2-0 on the season, it will be the 100th victory of the star quarterback's career, making him the third-fastest to reach the mark in 146 regular season starts behind only Tom Brady and Joe Montana.
"It’s just another one of the statements that adds to remarkable start to his career that we have all witnessed and been a part of," Carroll remarked. "The numbers are obvious and you can look at it a ton of different ways. He’s up there with one of the best to ever play the game. He’s just getting warmed up, that’s what it feels like. We have been very fortunate to have been a part of his entry into the league and he’s been fortunate to be here at the right time because he’s been received, accepted, and pushed to find his best."
"To be in the same category as a Tom Brady or a Joe Montana my first 10 years is a blessing," Wilson said.
Long before Wilson started racking up Pro Bowls, assaulting the franchise's record books, and guiding the Seahawks on deep postseason runs, Carroll recalled the moment when he told the young quarterback he would start in Week 1. Always competing, the two went outside at the VMAC to the team's basketball hoop to shoot a few three pointers.
“I think I took him two out of three. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I won the first two," Carroll paused and smiled. "He won’t remember it that way.”
Wilson, who was a standout basketball player at The Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, may dispute who won those shooting contests. But he most certainly remembers the moment Carroll informed him he had won the starting job.
"He's like 'I wanna tell you something, you're going to be our franchise quarterback. You're going to be the guy, the starter' and my eyes lit up," Wilson smiled as he looked back at the moment prior to Wednesday's practice. "I was just thinking about my dad and thinking about all the hard work. Early morning and my dad hitting me grounders."
Early on, Wilson took his lumps, as Carroll said the Seahawks "let him sit in the passenger's seat" while he got his feet underneath him playing one of the most challenging positions in professional sports. The franchise opened the year 6-5, barely in the discussion for a wild card, but everything changed in Week 13 playing visitors to the Bears at Soldier Field.
Prior to that contest in Chicago, Wilson had only thrown more than 27 passes in a game twice and Seattle lost both games. He had primarily been a game manager to that point with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell riding the legs of star running back Marshawn Lynch and a stingy defense keeping the team close on the scoreboard.
Trailing 14-10 with 3:40 left in the fourth quarter, Carroll told Bevell and other assistant coaches it was time to take Wilson's training wheels off. If the Seahawks were going to escape with a road win against an experienced, talented foe, they needed their young quarterback to carry them to victory.
“I told the guys ‘Let him go, this is his game!," Carroll recalled. "From that point, we let the reigns out a little bit. We were just trying to raise him up and hopefully we could do that without the big setbacks and the big pitfalls that guys have to go through sometimes. We pretty much made it through.”
Starting pinned deep at their own three-yard line, Wilson used both his arm and his running ability to quickly march the Seahawks down the field. After hooking up with Sidney Rice for a 27-yard connection down to the Bears 13-yard line, the former Wisconsin star found Golden Tate for a 14-yard touchdown to take the lead with only 32 seconds left to play.
Even after a Robbie Gould field goal forced overtime, Wilson would not be denied. Winning the coin toss and choosing to receive, he led another long 12-play, 80-yard drive, rushing for 28 yards on three carries and completing all three of his pass attempts for 36 yards. Though Rice got decked and suffered a concussion on the play, the rookie capped off his third game-winning drive of the season with a 13-yard touchdown to his trusted veteran target.
From Carroll's perspective, the comeback win was truly a coming of age moment for Wilson, who finished the game with a career-best 293 passing yards and two touchdowns. He also showed off his duel-threat talents, rushing nine times for 71 yards while putting the team on his back for a signature win.
"This position is hard to play, it’s hard to master," Carroll said. "It takes a lot of time to really get and fortunately we’ve been able to watch that happen [with Russ]. It’s been remarkable, it’s been really fun.”
The landmark victory off the shores of Lake Michigan jumpstarted a five-game winning streak to close out the regular season as Wilson and the Seahawks produced at least 42 points in three of the final four contests, clinching a playoff berth as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. 14 months later, they were carrying a Lombardi Trophy after dismantling the Broncos 43-8 at MetLife Stadium in Super Bowl XLVIII.
In the midst of his 10th NFL season, Wilson has since captured all of Seattle's passing records. He's been a Second-Team All-Pro and garnered Pro Bowl honors seven additional times. He currently sits 19th in NFL history for touchdown passes, only three away from passing Montana and four away from tying Vinny Testaverde.
Though he's grateful for his immense individual success, Wilson believes his number one job as quarterback of the Seahawks is to help his team win football games. Exhibiting rare consistency throughout his career, he's been as good as any player ever to lace 'em up at achieving that goal.
"For me, the biggest thing is to just keep going, keeping winning. That's what the game is about," Wilson said. "Anything else is not in my mindset, so every day I wake up, it's to win and help our team win and provide and have great habits in our approach and how we do things at the highest, highest level."
With a chance to enter exclusive company among two of his biggest idols in Brady and Montana, he's not taking this latest opportunity for granted. With winning topping everything else, he hopes to continue matching their success by guiding his team to more victories starting on Sunday.